Facing off with the CEO whose massive bank appropriated customers’ information to create millions of bogus accounts, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had sharp questions Tuesday for Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. She said Stumpf made millions of dollars in the “scam,” telling him, “You should resign … and you should be criminally investigated.”
As we’ve reported before, Wells Fargo is paying $185 million in penalties for acts that date to at least to 2011. The firm says it fired some 5,300 employees who were found to have created false accounts as it sought to increase “cross-selling” — building the number of accounts each customer holds.
The exchanges between Warren and Stumpf were among the sharpest, but other senators also pressed the executive about what have become hot topics as public outrage has grown over the case. Here’s some of what panel Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and others wanted to know:
- Whether Stumpf regards the case as one of fraud
- Whether the bank will “claw back” any of the millions it has paid to former executive Carrie Tolstedt, who is retiring with nearly $125 million
- How the bank will help customers whose credit ratings have been hurt by the fake accounts
Responding to those questions, Stumpf said he lacked the appropriate expertise, declaring himself at various times not to be a lawyer, a compensation expert or a credit consultant.
Warren began her questioning by citing Wells Fargo’s Vision and Values Statement, particularly its suggestion, “If you want to find out how strong a company’s ethics are, don’t listen to what its people say, watch what they do.”
“So, let’s do that,” Warren said. She then accused Stumpf of failing to hold himself or any other senior executives accountable for the company’s actions. “It’s gutless leadership,” she said, noting that Stumpf is not resigning, returning any of his earnings or firing any senior executives.
Warren moved on to the subject of cross-selling — calling it a particular focus of Stumpf’s tenure as CEO, citing his goal of eight accounts per customer and saying that cross-selling was “one of the main reasons that Wells has become the most valuable bank in the world.”
The senator asked Stumpf, “Cross-selling is all about pumping up Wells’ stock price, isn’t it?”
“No,” the executive answered. “Cross-selling is shorthand for deepening relationships,” he continued — before Warren cut him off.
She then produced 12 transcripts of Wells Fargo earnings calls Stumpf participated in from 2012 to 2014 — “the three full years in which we know this scam was going on,” Warren said.
“In all 12 of these calls, you personally cited Wells Fargo’s success at cross-selling retail accounts as one of the main reasons to buy more stock in the company,” Warren told Stumpf. She went on to quote him from the transcripts, as he touted the company’s record growth to more than six accounts per household.
When Warren asked Stumpf — who made $19.3 million in annual compensation (including a performance bonus of $12.5 million) in 2015, how much his stock holdings at Wells Fargo had gained during the period in question, the executive said that the information was all in the public record.
Warren then produced the information herself, saying that Stumpf held an average of 6.75 million shares in the company in that time frame — and that the share price had risen by about $30, “which comes out to more than $200 million in gains, all for you personally, and thanks in part to those cross-sell numbers that you talked about on every one of those calls.”
Here’s what Warren said toward the end of her allotted time to question Stumpf:
“Here’s what really gets me about this, Mr. Stumpf. If one of your tellers took a handful of $20 bills out of the crash drawer, they’d probably be looking at criminal charges for theft. They could end up in prison.
“But you squeezed your employees to the breaking point so they would cheat customers and you could drive up the value of your stock and put hundreds of millions of dollars in your own pocket.
“And when it all blew up, you kept your job, you kept your multi-multimillion-dollar bonuses, and you went on television to blame thousands of $12-an-hour employees who were just trying to meet cross-sell quotas that made you rich.
“This is about accountability. You should resign. You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. This just isn’t right.”
Stumpf testified with a conspicuously bandaged right hand — it was particularly noticeable when he raised it to be sworn in Tuesday morning. A bank representative says he injured himself playing with his grandchildren.
During his allotted time to question Stumpf, Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., voiced skepticism at the idea that the 5,300 Wells Fargo employees who were fired had all acted independently.
“You state unequivocally that there are no orchestrated effort or scheme, as some have called it, by the company,” Toomey told Stumpf. “But when thousands of people conduct the same kind of fraudulent activity, it’s a stretch to believe that every one of them independently conjured up this idea of how they would commit this fraud.”